Chapter 26: Interview: Doug Church
Chapter 26: Interview: Doug Church
In an industry increasingly intent on delivering a more cinematic, highly orchestrated, and largely scripted experience to gamers, some developers have
What was your driving motivation to get into game development?
I worked on some little games in college with some
What about game development attracted you to it?
I had always
What were the origins of the Ultima Underworld project?
Paul Neurath and Ned Lerner had gone to Wesleyan together, and afterward they did a game called
for Sir Tech. Then Paul went off and did
for Origin and Ned went off and did an early
for EA, and then he did
had already been half RPG but with a very, very low polygon count 3D flight engine. And so in that same vein he had this idea of doing a
So then we kind of worked on it for a year, getting the basic tech going, and then pitched them a couple story concepts. And then the one that one of the other guys and I wrote caught enough that they were comfortable with it as an Ultima , and so we then just went ahead and built that, basically. We only went to Texas twice on that project, once at the ten-month point and once at the sixteen-month point. Warren [Spector] was the third producer on the project, but he was the one who stuck to it. He came in about halfway through the project, and then in the final quarter he started coming up to Boston a lot.
Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss
Origin wasn t overly protective of the Ultima franchise?
Well, the first story that was written, that I didn t write but one of the other guys wrote, was a little too traditional fantasy and not enough
elements, and they said, Well, this doesn t feel very
. Try again. I was a huge
fan, and Dan Schmidt, who was the other guy who wrote the story to
, was maybe not as big an
fan as I was, but still a pretty big fan. So we didn t approach it as what story did we want to write but instead what was a cool
story we could tell. We
Ultima Underworld seems to have been pretty ambitious in how it blended genres, combining simulation-style technology with an RPG. How did that come about?
You ve got to give Paul a lot of credit there first off, simply because he had the initial idea. And if you look back at
, that was a 2D tile map
style RPG, but then you d get in your ship and fly around in 3D and shoot pirates or not and shoot cops or not. It was a very early,
Ultima Underworld II: Labyrinth of
Of the original guys that were
Given all that, it is pretty impressive it turned out as well as it did.
It was kind of amazing it ever got done. I remember my first thought when I saw it in a store was, Don t they know we re not professionals? We never got a license to do this! If people buy that, they ll realize... It s pretty weird to see your thing shrink-wrapped. It s just very odd, you get that moment of, Wait a second, I guess I just go do what I want to do with my life.
It s interesting. Paul was very day to day at the beginning of the project. Later he got more involved in running Looking Glass, which was Blue Sky at the time, starting up new projects and dealing with business stuff and money and all that. But I have to say he was a huge help at the beginning, just giving us a
Paul set a very good example by finding the right staff. And a bunch of us had been at school together, so we had that You re in college, and you re an engineer, and you go figure things out. Which, once again, often leads to a lot of thrashing and hard work and trying and
So we got really lucky, between Paul andWarren as our two
Was there ever a worry from Origin that the
gameplay was too much of a
I would say for the first year they didn t really think it was ever going to get done. They didn t pay any attention at all, frankly. We had two
Ultima Underworld II: Labyrinth of Worlds
We had a huge advantage in that even though we were trying to make a hybrid game and we were trying to figure out what a dungeon simulator was, we had all the
-ness of it to fall back on. Sure, we were inventing how to move and how to swing your sword and all that stuff, but at the end of the day it was an
. You talk, you get, you drop, you combine reagents, you use runes. We made up that spell system with the tiles because that worked better, but even there we used the
runes. I was a huge
fan. The first time I got to meet Richard, which was a year into the project, it was awesome. It was like, wow, it s Richard Garriott, rock and roll! I was so excited when I got my
beta copy because we were working on an
at the same time. We just really thought
were cool on some level, and it was cool to be working on it. I think they could tell that: OK, these guys are trying to do the right thing. And the second story we brought was very
, and they were like OK, these guys want to do an
. Once Warren got involved they obviously felt that Warren could help make sure things stayed on track, and it was pretty casual. There s a reason it s called UW, because it wasn t
at first, it was just
. We did a lot of work on our own
It seems like Ultima Underworld was very much designed around the technology, instead of the other way around. How did the game design process work?
We d all played
. It s not like we had nothing in mind. I had played tons of
Bard s Tale 1
when I was in junior high school, and we d played the early, early dungeon games. And we were obviously incredibly conscious of the technology. When you re sitting there timing all your assembler
originate? Did you have more of a
was initially going to ship in February, but then we all tried to pull it in for Christmas. So inevitably we signed off on December 30th with everyone working overtime over Christmas, in that classic, genius game development way. So we shipped that in January, and I actually went down to Origin in Texas for a couple of weeks for that, while the guys were still up in Boston. And finally the final two guys in Boston and I would get on the phone and make sure I had all the new code and modem it back and forth and all that kind of excitement we had back then, reading hex checksums of all the files over the phone to make sure we were building the same thing. There s nothing like, three in the morning, reading off two hundred sets of hex
Do you mean you and Warren?
MostlyWarren and I, but Paul Neurath back in Boston along with Austin Grossman who was one of the writer/designer guys on
. So we all bounced some ideas around, and I think Paul came down for a couple of days, and then Paul and I came back up to Boston, and Paul, Austin, and I bounced some ideas around and came up with a couple of little meta-settings. The abandoned spaceship or the
Austin, Warren, Paul, and I wrote up a bunch of minutes of gameplay. Just sort of Here s what a minute of playing this game is going to feel like. You know, You hear the sound of a security camera swiveling, and then the beep of it acquiring you as a target, so you duck behind the crate and then you hear the door open so you throw a grenade and run out of the way... We had a couple of little docs like that which Austin and I took and revised. And in a lot of ways those became the game design. Obviously we put real story around it and all that kind of thing. So that was pretty important for Shock .
We kind of wanted to do something different with it.
was designed by a screenshot that Doug Wike had done with Paul before Paul even hired any programmers. Doug was the artist who had worked on Paul s older games and had worked at Origin. Doug was the main artist on
. A guy named Carol Angell also did a bunch of work in the second half of the project, but Doug was there at the beginning, and he did this screenshot, which was a screen layout and a little twenty-frame animation of an orc walking down the hall at you and you
we had stats and inventory and talking and movement, and in
we really wanted to unify that. I felt that
was sort of three different games you played in parallel. There was the stats-based game with the experience points, the inventory collecting and management game, the 3D moving around game, and there was the talking game, the conversation branch game. And much as the world was very low-fi, it was still way more hi-fi than any of the actual
One of the reasons we wanted all the audio for the voice-overs was because the whole idea of killing everyone on the station and then making all the people only accessible through their data logs was that you could keep playing the game. You wouldn t have to stop to have a conversation or stop to read or stop to choose, you d just be moving around and, if you wanted to, you could listen to a log from the person there and they d be describing a scene that had
So it doesn t interrupt your play experience.
Exactly. It just felt much more integrated. I think in
we did do a good job of integrating everything into one piece a little better. The tone of the whole game was a little more consistent, a little more scary and alone, and the systems were much simpler. There were no stats any more. In
, there was all this dice rolling going on
It s interesting you used the game minute technique, since that lays out just one way events can take place in a given location. With a game that
I think you have two things you can do. One is, you do a couple of them, to
It seems like you designed System Shock around how you could tell a story better than in Ultima Underworld . Was improving your storytelling one of your primary goals?
I think we obviously always cared about story ” we were definitely interested in fantasy/sci-fi possibilities. On some level I think we
It s the way it was told.
I think the bite-sized chunks plus the Foley and ambience plus the continual pervasive enemy. Even when you weren t interacting with Shodan, you d see a security camera you had to take out. All those little actions become part of the story in some sense. And the fact that you re exploring the story as opposed to having the story force fed to you, I think was a huge help as well. The fact that it s not You have to talk to me now. Instead you pick up this log but maybe you don t read it right away or maybe you want to think back on something so you can go back and bring the log up again and explore it. It s all smoke and mirrors, but I think it makes the player feel more central. And I think that makes people take more possession of it and feel that it s theirs more.
It seems like System Shock went out of its way to blend different game genres together even more than Ultima Underworld . Was that intentional?
In all honesty I don t think any of us really thought about that stuff very much, which has been something that has always gotten us in trouble. But I think on some level, it was Hey, let s make this game. Obviously, for us, we said, Hey, Underworld was fun but all that conversation stuff was kind of a pain and those stats seemed to be distracting you and all that number and detail stuff. Can t we streamline this a little bit? Can t we make it a little more action and a little more immediate? And that was pretty much it. I don t think we were specifically thinking, Hey, let s do an action-RPG or whatever. I think it was more an evolution of Underworld more than anything else.
Since the first
had come out and had become a huge hit with a much more simple,
No, I think we were just doing our own thing, frankly. We knew the id guys and obviously their stuff was awesome ” we all were fans in the sense that we thought it was cool. But by the time
had come out we were pretty much done with
so it wasn t like we were looking at them to get ideas, per se. They were kinda doing their thing and we were kinda doing our thing. I don t know if they respected our stuff or liked it; we certainly respected and
So you tried to avoid comparing yourself to whatever else was going on in gaming?
It s not that we didn t play and like other games. We did. And we certainly thought about what we did and didn t like about them, and we certainly talked about games a lot. But I don t remember being in meetings and people saying, Make it more like this other thing. We were kinda just doing the game we thought we should do. And, for good or for bad, that was pretty much in reference to the games we had done already. And obviously we were seeing all the Origin stuff that was in development, and we were sort of influenced by that RPG/story
System Shock , like Ultima Underworld before it, was a pretty non-linear game experience. Was that one of your primary design goals?
I think on both
, we didn t want to build games where you clear out every square on this level and then you go on to the next level.
had lots of things that would cut you off and you had to come back to later, or at least you should come back to later. For example, now that you ve reached level seven, you re going to have to go back to areas that you couldn t get to before. Both games had their four or five major checkpoints, but we d always believed that player choice was pretty central to what made it fun for people. And that player-centric stuff was what you remember. You remember the clever little thing you did more than you remember some cut-scene. To us, giving players the ability, even if they don t think of it as such, to go their own way is where they re going to be more likely to do something they remember and care about. In
we certainly tried to build some systems like upgrades or the security cameras where you had a fair amount of freedom in which order you did it and how you did it, where it wasn t just Go do this sequence of four things. It was Well, there are going to be twelve
I think that was our philosophy of design. We were very state-based as opposed to
System Shock seemed to be one of the earliest games of its type to use physics, even in a pretty primitive form.
I think we saw that in
, where we had this incredibly remedial physics but people still had fun throwing things and bouncing the superball around and trying to hit targets with things. And we said, Hey, let s do more of that because worlds have physics. On some level it s still just a dungeon simulator, and we re still just trying to
It always seemed to me like a pretty significant step forward.
I think we certainly were attempting to refine and focus. This was the stuff we thought we d done OK on, which was primarily this idea of exploration, and how much players liked doing their own thing and remembered spaces and places and stories that we told. Some of the best stuff I think in
was where there was no dialog. The story was all told through what was on screen. A lot of people at the time remembered the troll/
I always thought the idea of having the separate
We thought it just fit from a conceptual standpoint: you re a hacker, shouldn t you hack something? We thought it would be fun to throw in a different movement mode that was more free-form, more action. In retrospect we probably should have either cut it or spent more time on it. There is some fun stuff in it, but it s not as polished as it should be. But even so it was nice because it at least reinforced the idea that you were the hacker, in a totally random, arcade-y, broken sort of way. But at least it suggested that you re something other than a guy with a gun. Like I said, we were pretty intro-focused then. We were looking at
Though the Looking Glass games did pretty well commercially, they never were massive hits like the id games that came out around the same time, despite using similarly impressive technology. Was the company ever distressed by this?
I don t know about distressed... In general, I think we were doing things which were technically more
So selling more copies wasn t too much of a concern?
There was some discussion about it: Wow, gosh, it d sure be nice if we were making more money and selling more copies so we can do crazy games of the type we want as opposed to having to worry about how we re going to sell more. Hey, I d love it if the public was more into what I like to do and a little less into slightly more straightforward things. But I totally get that they re into straightforward things. I don t have any divine right to have someone hand me millions of dollars to make a game of whatever I want to do. If the market wanted a bunch more Underworlds , they would have bought them. At some fundamental level, everyone has a wallet, and they vote with it.
Was there ever talk of making your games play more like the id games to make them sell better?
id was doing a great job at doing that game. And more power to them. I think you want to do things that connect with the market and you want to do things that people like and you want to do things that get seen. But you also want to do things you actually believe in and that you
Ultima Underworld II: Labyrinth of Worlds
The Flight Unlimited project seemed to be a pretty big departure from what Looking Glass had been doing up to that point.
were in development. Most of the
team ended up on
for a little while to help it ship and then they moved on to
and whatever else was going on at the time. Looking Glass was going through this period of trying to do a lot of things at once and sort of overreaching itself and being a little overambitious and a little cocky. The company was trying to establish itself as a publisher at a time when that was very, very hard to do. All the other mid-sized publishers were mostly going out of business or getting bought, while we were trying to branch into new genres and do more things and start up an affiliate label and self-publish
and all this other craziness. No one in the management chain of the company really paid any attention to
was going to be the first self-published product, and fair enough. From a company standpoint,
was the product that had to be the hit, because it was the self-published title. Ned and Paul had merged to become Blue Sky Research, which became Looking Glass, and Ned had obviously been into flight simulators, having worked on
. And Seamus [Blackley] obviously was into the whole flight simulator thing. The company s focus was the attempt to self-publish and get out of the treadmill of waiting for advances and get a chance to get some solidity behind things so one can make forward-looking decisions instead of just focusing on the short
How did the Thief project originate?
We had a bunch of
The other big idea was that these same factions would help you in off-screen ways, because we didn t want to have actual teammates. We didn t want to write AI that you would have to pay attention to and worry about whether they leapt the chasm when you leapt the
You mean in terms of the game fiction?
In terms of fiction and structure. We had a post-ColdWar
And then we had this reverse-Arthurian fiction where you were Mordred and your advisor was Morgan le Fey, who was sort of a good person. Lancelot was this evil jerk and Merlin was a time-traveling marketing guy from the future. All the Knights of the Round Table wore jerseys with logos and numbers, and the Holy Grail was this fake thing that they didn t think existed but they were using it as a way to continue to oppress the masses and take all their money and treat them poorly. The
But they were all still immersive simulation, first-person games?
Yeah, yeah. Once again, in
there were all these spy groups and in
there were all these different groups of outcasts you could work with to try to get into Camelot and mess things up. But as we started worked on some of the
stuff, A, we were having infinite challenges trying to convince anyone it was marketable, and B, the missions that we had the best definition on and the best detail on were all the breaking into Camelot, meeting up with someone, getting a clue, stealing something, whatever. As we did more work in that direction, and those continued to be the missions that we could explain best to other people, it just started going that way. With the faction thing we never got whatever we needed to actually make time to make a prototype. The thing about that is it requires a lot of play mechanics until it starts working, whereas the basic stealth model was something you could kind of get the basic idea of by having the guard looking the other way and you going past pretty quickly. So Paul had been pushing for a while that the thief side of it was the really interesting part and why not you just do a thief game. And as things got more
It seems like at the time there were not a lot of other stealth games.
Not that we knew of, at least. Right before we shipped, Tenchu came out in Japan, and I think it came out in the States shortly thereafter. So we certainly looked at Tenchu when it came out, but by that point our game was mostly done other than tuning, and they were much more an action-y arcade game. They were a lot more about killing people in cool ninja ways. Tenchu was a cool game, but it was a different focus than our game.
It s interesting to me that you
I think it was more that we believed in it. I mean, Eidos never really believed in it and until the end told us to put more monsters in the levels and have more fighting and exploring and less stealth and I m not sure there was ever a point they got it. I mean, the
Yet they still
Certainly. If they hadn t done that, we wouldn t have done the game. So very thankful for that. I m not sure we ever got to a point where they said, Oh yeah, this is gonna work. I think they at least had OK, we re selling this anti-hero
How did you convince people internally that
We got some very early
Would it have been better to be more cohesive earlier?
Well, certainly it would have been great to be more cohesive earlier, though I m not sure what we would have had to sacrifice to do that. Obviously, these days in the industrywe try to get a lot more working early on, but I think that means it s harder to take as many risks. More to the point, it s much harder to do games that require a lot of systems. And in a way that s good because super-overcomplicated games rarely work. But if you do it right I think you can have a lot of systems that work together in a very elegant and transparent way, but that s the kind of thing that s very hard to show right now because you re told, All right, well, before we do any real development, we need a prototype that works, and that means you re only going to be able to do a few new things at a time built upon whatever you did last. I think that makes it very hard to do something as simple as
, which is an incredibly focused game, but it still requires light and shadows that work, and shadow detection that works, and AI that can understand shadows, and a speech system so that the AIs can communicate to you about the shadows. It s not rocket science, but it s a lot of stuff. Like I said, we hacked together some stuff at the beginning to give us an idea that, OK, this could probably work, but I m not sure it would have ever convinced a publisher it was going to work; obviously it
Aside from the publisher side of it, with a truly innovative game, how do you convince the development team the game is going to work and how do you keep them on track with the vision?
Yeah, that s a super hard one. Part of it is you ve got to get a team that s comfortable with the degree of ambiguity. There are some people who are comfortable in that environment and others who aren t. And it s not good or bad in either case; it s just how people are. But I think that s a huge part of it right there, whether you get people who say, OK, that sounds kind of interesting. I m not sure I get it, but I think I get it pretty well so I ll go off and start trying to figure it out. Or whether you get people who say, I m just not seeing that, and I ll have a hard time building it or doing work toward it until I really understand it. So I think the attitude of the people you have is a huge piece of it, and I think that s where minutes of gameplay and storyboards and trying to describe the experience is so important; ways to communicate what you re trying to build before you ve built it. For
we had a huge advantage because at the end of the day we could say, well, is it making the character more thief-y? Hmm, that looks like it makes him stronger and brawnier, probably don t need that. Hmm, that looks like it makes him
Did you use game minutes on the project?
Yeah, we definitely did some of that on
. Not as much, I think, because we did a couple at the beginning and then it was pretty clear that, OK, we want this idea of
For a game like Thief , how do you balance the pure systems side of the game with specific scripting?
The goal is certainly to minimize the scripting in something like
, because not only does the scripting take forever, but it also means that you re likely to have situations where the AI reacts differently in different places, which is the death knell for a game like that because the player can t plan or understand and then nothing is repeatable and then the player is driven insane. So in
there were some places that had heavy scripting, but they had more to do with playing out story events: When this happens you re going to have to make these four AIs go over here because story-wise this event happens. So there s some of that scripting but not a lot. We spent a while where we had some fairly sophisticated scripting systems, but it was fairly complicated and really no one but the programmers ever used it. And then Tom Leonard, who was our main AI guy, took the key elements of the scripting stuff you wanted to do with the AIs and built this pseudo-script interface which was this Mad Lib-like
Did you need to enforce a rule with the design team about how much or how little to script?
I think everyone got it pretty well. Most of the time the scripting was just for the story stuff as I said. I think everyone got the idea that it was going to be systems-y just because it was clear that so much of the game was going to depend on you getting a visceral sense of how the AI behaved so that you could then elude them. And everyone knew that meant they had to be pretty repeatable and systems-based. And so for the designers it was a lot more about building spaces where you had good lines of sight where you could see the AI s
What do you mean by closure moments?
In most games you re killing everyone, so you get nice moments of closure when you win each battle, whereas in
you re going past people. Which means all those encounters are open-ended. It s like all the sentences start but they don t end. So a lot of time was spent on how do you get closure from these encounters that didn t really have closure. And a lot of that had to do with building spaces where the player can really see what s going on. If it gets too claustrophobic, the player doesn t really have any idea. In a lot of the early levels the AIs were on these incredibly interesting and complex paths which looked great on the overhead map but when you were playing the game it felt like it might as well be random. Because you d just have no idea what was going on: a guy would show up and then he d be gone and then he d show up some other place and you d forget to hide a body but you d have no idea if someone was going to find it. Because the player only had a very local sense of what was going on, we had to change the scope of the AI behaviors to be very local as well. Otherwise it just felt like randomness. And so a lot of the designers challenge came down to how do you build these spaces that can run in the engine fast enough, which certainly had a whole set of constraints about size and so forth, but at the same time big enough with clear enough line of sight or clear enough iconography. You had to be able to say, Oh, this is that main hallway and it looks just like that other main hallway so I bet the guard s on this rotating patrol through this hallway. OK, I get it. I better go hide the body off the hallway. Ways for the designers to make it possible for the player to make rational plans, given that the player couldn t bring up a radar or switch to the God s eye view and go, Oh, I see. How to keep that first-person immersion of Here I am, what s going to happen without making it so opaque that you might as well flail around
As with your previous games, was having fairly non-linear environments one of your primary design goals?
Yeah, definitely. There s no question that we were always about maximizing the player choice as much as possible and I think that in Underworld in particular we had a lot of watching people do things we hadn t expected or be clever in ways we hadn t expected. Or just watching where a couple of systems would come together in interesting ways. You know, I m being chased by a guy and I run into a locked door and now I have to pick the lock but the guy s behind me trying to shoot me and I finally get through the locked door just as I m about to die but, oh my god, there are enemies in here so I jump in the water and try to swim away but... Just these little sequences that were not scripted or planned out in any way, they were just players in the space improvising. And so in Thief , though obviously it was a much more focused game, we wanted to keep that sense of do whatever you want to do and do it however you want to do it so you can kill people or not, you can try to evade them or take them out, you can use your gear to sneak around or you can go straight in the front. We very consciously wanted to maximize the players ability to do it their own way.
It s interesting that the systems approach to game design is more rare in the industry. Among its supporters, such as yourself, it seems so clearly the right way to go, yet so few games actually use it.
I think you can point to some examples in the industry. GTA is very systems-based in some ways, so I think there are a couple of examples of people doing systems-based work.
But they re still definitely in the minority.
Oh, I agree. I think there s a couple of things. One, I think it s just generally harder to do, which makes it a risk. I also think it s easy in systems-based games to get distracted by the big things and just build something that s confusing or obscure. And certainly our games, I m proud of them all, but I think there are times we overdid things, in some sense. And also, I think one of the problems with systems-based gaming in general is it s easy to get games that feel very flat. It s very hard to moderate the emotional curve of a systems-based game. We did not do that nearly as well as we should have partially because I think we weren t looking at it that way enough.
What do you mean by moderate the emotional curve?
You know the beauty of a systems-based game is the player can take it as they want. The beauty of a purely scripted,
Medal of Honor
When you get the memorable moment in a systems-based game it s usually much more powerful, because it s something that you did on your own. I think players really do remember things that they did more than they remember things that we write. I think when you talk to players about their game experience, the things they remember are mostly the clever thing they did or the cool way they approached a problem or the amazing thing that they didn t think was going to work but that they pulled out at the last second. They don t tell you about Oh, in the thirty-seventh cut-scene, the guy on the right was really cool because he had spiky hair and a cool shirt on. He was my fave. Even the plot
I think moving forward for the people who care about systems-based work, we ve got to figure out how to get some of the emotional pacing and strong emotional
So you think emotional pacing is the key to why pure systems-based games haven t been as commercially successful as more scripted games?
I don t know if that s the only key, but I think that s certainly part of it. I think for us in particular we ve always built games that were a little harder to get into or we didn t do a good job on selling players on the fantasy and why they wanted it. We haven t done a great job on our
And I think a big challenge for the games industry is that some of the coolest games are games that take a while to get into. I think the people who are making those games have to think about what to do to make them more accessible so that we don t end up with only games that are fun in the first second. It would be great if every game were fun right away and could clearly distinguish itself from the rest of the market right away. In practice I think we are going to make games that are easy to get into and I think almost everything will get to the point where people can just pick it up and play it and have fun. The question then is how you distinguish which has more depth and if that is the depth that you as a player are interested in. And that s where at the moment as an industry we have no real way of communicating any of that. If it was five dollars a game, who would care? You d just pick it up because it sounded interesting and you d see if you like it. But at fifty dollars a pop, we have a bit of the McDonald s syndrome where people say, I ll go to McDonald s because I know what it tastes like even though maybe it s not the best food in town, but I don t have to risk seeing if that sub place on the corner is any good. We get some of that in our industry, where it s Well, that sounds interesting, but I don t know. I ll just go buy that game I know about already where I know exactly what it is and I won t be disappointed. The answer is changing. Fifteen years ago something like
sold pretty well but it was selling to a very different market than the console market. People were going into that with expectations about role-playing and how much time they were going to have to invest to get a handle on it. Whereas now there are still some games like that but in general most people are thinking more about entertainment and a little less about a challenging
I ve always thought it was pretty impressive that Looking Glass had such a good success rate with some pretty innovative titles.
It s kind of weird. The thing about Looking Glass is that Paul and Ned had obviously done a few games each before, but in a lot of ways the bulk of the company over the years was always new to games. A lot of people were just out of school, even on the design and programming side of it, and there were a lot of people who had an interest in gameplay and game mechanics and hadn t been at a lot of companies. We didn t have much context I guess; we hadn t worked other places. There wasn t anything to compare it to, so it wasn t Hmm, how are we doing and how are those other guys doing? It was more Well, gotta make some more games, let s go!
The fact that you were all so green makes your success even more surprising.
Sort of, except the advantage there is that you have a lot of people who believe they are going to work really hard and make it work. As opposed to Oh, I already know how to do it, we re just going to do it the same way or Oh, that will never work, we don t have time or Oh, it should have sold better so now I m disappointed. Instead it was just Let s go! Which is nice. Projects were smaller,
Were you sad to see Looking Glass finally go under?
Obviously, yes, in some sense. It had a pretty good run. I left five or six months before Looking Glass went away, and I had a degree of frustration with how things had gone over the last couple of years. And some of the changes, some of them were inevitable I think given the scale the company had grown to. And some of them were probably not inevitable, but hey, they happened, so be it. At some level I had personally been like OK, well, that s over. I obviously wished those guys the best and would have liked them to stay around and continue to do cool things. Certainly when I left I didn t think the company sucked or wasn t cool. I know a lot of people there who I really liked and there were some really good games being worked on. But for me, on some level I had already said this is a cool company but a very different one, and I think ten years is enough and there s enough things that frustrate me that I don t want to be here at the moment. But even so, yeah, obviously Looking Glass was a cool group and a lot of us put a lot of time and energy and a large part of our lives into it and it s sad when that doesn t work out. So there s some part ofme that says, oh that sucks, that s not fair, but it s the real world and it had a pretty good run.
The next thing you worked on was Deus Ex . What was your involvement with that?
I did very, very little, a tiny, tiny amount.
Obviously Warren and I talk all the time so I d seen design docs whenever I was down visiting and I would play the game and give them some feedback. But I was only down there for a couple of months, near the end, where I tried to do a little bit of work in making the AI a little more
It seemed that, to some extent, Deus Ex popularized a lot of the concepts you had pioneered with System Shock years earlier. How did you think it developed those ideas?
Looking Glass had gone on the focus focus focus track. Get something really deep even if it s narrow, whereas
was exactly the
Whatever, who knows. It s just a different approach, and in practice I m sure twenty years from now is going to look different than any of us expect anyway.
So the next thing you worked on was Frequency . What was your involvement with that?
Greg LoPiccolo was the project leader on
and had done the music for
and had been audio director at Looking Glass for a while after that. Greg left to go to Harmonix. And Dan Schmidt had done the music on
and was project leader on
and so on and so forth. Dan was on
for three or four months but then decided he d rather be at Harmonix. Dan s double major had been computer science and music and he was a
I mostly wrote code; I did some graphics work for a while and then I actually wrote all the sound code for
, all the low-level IOP sound engine, and then I went to a bunch of design meetings. Obviously the game was fairly well along before I got there, so certainly in no way at all was I one of the main designers on that game. I was a
Working on Frequency must have been a pretty big departure from all of your reality and simulation-based games. Was that a nice change of pace?
Yeah, I m not sure I d want to do it for fifteen years or whatever but it was certainly very interesting to work on
Almost all the games you have worked on have been first-person perspective games. Was that a
I think for
it was because we were doing a dungeon simulator and it was OK, well, we re going to take a flight simulator and put it in a dungeon. Hey, guess what, first-person. Going back to the talk about fidelity and how good a conversation system is, five, ten years ago
Personally I think we re now at the point where graphics and technology mean we can do third-person to a fidelity that makes it worthwhile and really robust, even in realistic games. We ve always been able to do it for platformers or non-realistic games. But I think in realistic games we re getting to the point where the fidelity of the third-person experience is strong enough that it s OK. Thief 3 does a seamless first-third transition whenever you want dynamic. and I think it works pretty well. I think they made that decision a little late in the development process, so I think the third-person stuff s a little dodgier than maybe it should be; if they d known at the beginning they were going to do that I m sure it would look a little better. But even as it is, I think, given the timeline they had, they did a pretty good job of doing a third-person. So I think it s more about whether it lets the player have the experience they want. In something like Thief , in a way it s better because it s that whole fantasy of sneaking around and being in the shadows, which is almost enhanced by being in third-person because you can see all the shadows on yourself. In a weird way you re almost a little more disconnected from your character in first-person in Thief because you re always trying to understand how well hidden you are, which actually kind of hurts the experience, despite the fact that you re first-person and therefore a little more immersed because you re right there. So I think it s game by game and technology by technology. I certainly don t think that first-person should go away and I certainly don t think that first-person is only relevant for shooters, though obviously that s where you mostly see it at the moment. But I certainly think the fidelity and increased quality of third-person means that third-person s a lot easier to integrate into a realistic, systems-based modern game than it was five or ten years ago.
It s interesting to hear you say that, sinceWarren always seemed to be making the choice of doing first-person from a game design and immersion perspective, whereas you were more
Well, I think we were saying that first-person lets us do a lot more right now. So we do increase the immersion, but simply because it works better, because if I go to third-person and look at these third-person games I feel like this kind of weird robot. And in first-person it s very natural to look around and interact with things, I don t have to have some weird arm that s trying to motion blend and looks horrible, all that kind of stuff. And as I said I still think that s somewhat true, depending on your game design and whether you can support third or not. But I think if you look at something like Thief where the player only does a limited number of things with the environment and you can do that fairly robustly in third-person, I think in that case you can immerse almost as well if not better in different ways. I personally still think that first-person is pretty exciting and pretty compelling in a way that other modes often aren t. But I don t think it s the only way to get a player fully involved. It s just always hard when you re looking at a character to be the character at the same time. Are you puppeteering or are you the character? And I think that s a weird thing. That s not yet at the point where we understand it so well that we have an answer.
Thief: Deadly Shadows
Despite all your first-person games, you ve always deliberately stayed away from making a shooter, which many seem to find to be the most obvious thing to do with that particular viewpoint. What are your motivations for avoiding it?
I don t dislike them. Personally it s just not all that interesting to me. I don t really play FPSs very much, I mean I do, every couple of years I play something. I played
Call of Duty
last year, I m sure I ll play
this year, assuming they come out. It s not that I dislike them, it s just that they re not what gets me most excited as a creator. It just feels to me that there s a lot of interesting stuff to do that isn t that. In some sense, shooters have ultimate player choice, because they re all about systemsbased damage dealing and damage avoiding. They re incredibly choice based. But on the other hand, that choice is incredibly limited. A role-playing game where I get to decide whether I m the guy who kills people with axes or the guy who
I ve seen you discuss the concept of game developers
It s basically the same player stuff, in that we re the media where the player can be on stage, and the consumer of the media can be the one that s at the center of the experience. It s not like in a painting you don t bring yourself to the painting, but that s a slightly different experience than being the person moving around. And so when you think about the unique DNA of gaming and the unique things that we can do that other media can t, that idea of empowering the player and making the player the center of the experience is really pretty compelling to me. As I said, when players remember things, a lot of the stuff they remember is the stuff they did, not the stuff they read about. You talk to Miyamoto and he talks about Hey, I started with the controller. And a lot of designers talk about verbs and the interactions and what are we going to let the player do. It s not that you re not authoring an experience ” you re very clearly authoring an experience ” but you re authoring a set of systems which generate an experience with the player. My hope would be that fifteen or twenty years from now that idea of player-centric mechanics is going to be in more of our games. I hope more of our stuff will be clearly a game that wants to be a game and is empowering the player to show off, and less games that are cool because they ve got someone from a movie or the cut-scenes are great or the explosions are extra-special. Not that those things aren t great; hopefully we ll have all that stuff too, but hopefully we ll also have a player that s a little more involved.
Despite your goal to make your games offer players choices, they re almost all focused on physical conflict and players killing something or avoiding getting
Yeah, I think we re still a ways off though we re making slow, slow progress. Right now the issues are just at some level those are the interactions that are easiest to explain to people and easiest to implement. Those are the emotions that are
Are you fairly pessimistic about the state of the industry?
Oh yeah, definitely. I find the industry incredibly frustrating, but yet incredibly compelling as well. There s good and bad.
For the last couple of years you ve been fairly involved with the Indie Game Jam, where a bunch of programmer/designer types get together in a central location and crank out a bunch of unique games in three days, without really any regard for commercial viability. Do you see more hope for innovation in game design coming from something independent like that?
It s a couple of things. Part of it is just, hey, it s fun. On one hand those things are cool and do make a statement, but on the other hand it shouldn t be overlooked that part of their value is just a bunch of people getting together and having some fun. There s no real law against that. That said, there s only so much interesting risky stuff one can do in the industry, mysteriously, despite the fact that games now cost five or ten million dollars or more. That seems to constrain us more than it helps us at times. And I think as an industry we ve got to learn how to deal with that. I don t literally think that we re going to do Indie Game Jams and then some year it s suddenly going to revolutionize the industry, and Bing Gordon will go to an EA stock announcement and talk about how, using the model of the Indie Game Jam, EA has restructured North American development. That seems somewhat
The gaming press is sort of horrifying and marginally relevant at best anyway, but I think if you honestly rated games they d all get a .05 or something. That s not true; there are certainly games that do a pretty good job at giving you a pretty cool experience that is relevant.
is a fine little street
In general, you seem to balance your time working on games with being active in the game development community. What s your motivation for that?
I think games are really interesting and I certainly have a lot of
Doug Church Gameography
Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss , 1992
Ultima Underworld II: Labyrinth of Worlds, 1993
System Shock, 1994
Flight Unlimited , 1995 (Consultant)
Thief, 1998 Deus Ex, 2001 (Consultant)
Frequency, 2001 (Consultant)